Les Caractères de la Danse: Fantaisie
Jean-Baptiste-Féry Rebel (1666-1747)
Pièces de clavecin avec voix ou violon
J.-J. Cassanéa de Mondonville (1711-1772)
Sonata in D Minor
Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725)
Anonymous (17th century)
Suite in G
Michel Corrette (1643-1704)
Tra le fiamme (Il consiglio), HW 170
George Frederic Handel (1685-1759)
With a whirlwind suite of dances and Handel’s extravagant musings on the fate of Icarus as bookends, Flying High surveys the heights of the Italian and French Baroque while featuring a bit of shameless virtuosity. From Mondonville’s endless roulades to an anonymous but memorable Folia, this program gives virtually every member of the ensemble a chance to soar.
Though the most celebrated musical products of the ancien régime are its operas, instrumental works from this environment are no less rich in musical invention and effect. The celebrated violinist Jean-Baptiste-Féry Rebel, whose 1716 royal appointment as Maitre de Musique transformed musical life at the court of the elderly Louis XIV, pioneered what came eventually to be known as “program music.” His ballet Les Caractères de la danse, first presented (with choreography) at the Paris Opera around 1720, enjoyed widespread popularity with and without dancers; Handel presented the work in London just a few years later. Subtitled “fantaisie,” this fleet suite includes virtually every French Baroque dance within a highly compressed time frame. Its deft detours—from one dance type to the next, mostly without pause—surely gave P. D. Q. Bach much to admire.
The suite that opens the second half of tonight’s program is a kind of “performer’s choice” comprising movements from several different sources, including a Concerto comique by Michel Corrette, which itself borrows from both Jean-Philippe Rameau and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Les Sauvages, from Rameau’s opera-ballet Les Indes galantes and as arranged by Corrette, is perhaps this musical travelogue’s most memorable morceaux. Though American Indians would have been baffled by such music, for the French Rameau’s thumpy rhythms and simple tune conjured up an exotic world an ocean away. The Musette en Rondeau, along with the closing pairs of rigaudons and tambourins, come from the same stage work, whose four suites of dances are endlessly colorful. The remaining movement of our invented suite, Rousseau’s Quand on scait aimer et plaire, is included for both musical and ideological contrast. Not content to write only philosophy, Rousseau proposed his own melody-dominated musical style against the busier textures of Rameau. Though we don’t remember him principally for his compositions, the man certainly knew how to write a good tune!
Despite their nonchalant title, nearly all of Mondonville’s ten Pièces de clavecin avec voix ou violon require both voice and violin; each, moreover, puts the performers to work in novel and interesting ways. The composer, who enjoyed great prestige at the French court, apparently wrote these pieces for his wife, who was a talented harpsichordist and singer. Their sacred texts, which seem oddly out of place in settings that are alternatively sensuous and virtuosic, may well have been motivated by the dedication of the volume to the archbishop of Rennes.
Though comparatively few in number, Alessandro Scarlatti’s surviving instrumental works are filled with idiomatic melodies and figuration. The Sonata in D minor for cello and continuo, one of a set of three such works, is by turns darkly brooding and intensely sweet. Precisely what kind of cello Scarlatti intended is an open question: early cellos came in various sizes, from the normal four-string instrument familiar today to the smaller five-string violoncello piccolo, which was popular among the Italians and Germans.
Throughout the Baroque era, one of the most common ways to generate instrumental music involved improvisation on standard harmonic progressions. The folia (or Folies d’Espagne), although longer than most Baroque bass patterns, falls quickly into a familiar groove, which may explain its spectacular longevity from the late Renaissance to the beginning of the 19th century. This evening’s Folia, from a manuscript housed in the Biblioteca Nacionale in Madrid, consists of a single though quite extraordinary violin part, to which an accompaniment may be improvised.
Handel composed Tra le fiamme in Rome in 1707, to a libretto by Cardinal Benedetto Pamphili that conflates two similar analogies: butterflies flirting with flame, and Icarus’ fatal flight too near the sun. Such a topic was right up the good cardinal’s alley: Pamphilii’s literary name, as a member of the Arcadian Society, was Fenicio (Phoenix) Lariesseo. Scholars have used this and other provocative clues to propose a biographical connection with the young Handel, whose music reawakened the cardinal’s muse in ways that seem to have unsettled this prince of the church.
With this cantata libretto was Pamphilii warning Handel to keep his distance from soprano Vittoria Tarquini (who was someone else’s mistress)? Did Pamphilii want the young Saxon all for himself? Or might there be a more general message here—not to forget your proper station in life, for example? In any case, Handel created a lavish musical frame for Pamphilii’s text: in addition to the customary soprano and continuo, Tra le fiamme calls for two recorders, oboe, two violins, and viola da gamba. In its three arias the virtuosic obbligatos for viola da gamba create an intimate foil for the singer, who relates this story as a lesson to those who, like Icarus, might aspire toward the unattainable.
© Matthew Dirst